Now’s the time to sell lawmakers on the idea of adding a second daily Amtrak train across Wisconsin, a railroad passengers group says.
A proposed TCMC train would travel 410 miles from the Twin Cities to Milwaukee and Chicago and carry passengers in both directions once per day, offering more reliable schedules than the Empire Builder line.
“Currently, the Empire Builder is frequently late — crazy late,” Terry Brown of the Wisconsin Association of Railroad Passengers said during a town hall meeting Thursday night at Portage Enterprise Center. “Even the wait time is unpredictable. It’s 6 hours late one day, 8 hours late the next and 2 1/2 hours late the day after that.
“It’s nothing for a business person, or anyone else for that matter, to fit their schedule around.”
TCMC would complement the Empire Builder using the same track — its eastbound train boarding passengers on a schedule 4 to 5 hours later than the Empire’s eastbound train and, heading west, boarding passengers 4 to 5 hours earlier than the Empire’s westbound train.
For several years, the transportation departments of Wisconsin and Minnesota have studied the possibility of adding a second train, said Portage Director of Business Development and Planning Steve Sobiek. He said the idea seems to be gaining “more oxygen” with Tony Evers as Wisconsin’s new governor and a new transportation secretary in Craig Thompson.
TCMC dramatically boosts the appeal of train travel among the residents of Portage and beyond, especially for those traveling east to Chicago or Milwaukee, because the new train would be less susceptible to the long delays originating in Western states that plague the Empire Builder, TCMC advocates say.
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The Empire Builder line stretches 2,200 miles from Chicago to Seattle with daily eastbound and westbound Wisconsin stops in Milwaukee, Columbus, Portage, Wisconsin Dells, Tomah and La Crosse. The Empire Builder has five total train sets, Brown said, with an end-to-end travel time of about 45 hours.
“The sky’s the limit,” Sobiek said of the new travelers Portage could gain if a second daily train is added to the shorter line.
Fewer people used Wisconsin’s rural Amtrak stations in 2018, but the trends for ridership show growth when looking back several years, Sobiek said. More than 7,000 travelers boarded or got off Amtrak’s Empire Builder line at the Portage depot in 2018, Brown said — down 20 percent from the year before, when Portage saw a 27-percent increase in ridership, Wisconsin’s highest increase in ridership at that time.
Sobiek — one of only five attendees at the association’s town hall — is particularly intrigued by studies showing train travel is increasingly popular among millennials. He said he believes adding a second daily train “is an opportunity for Portage to enlarge its population base.”
The rail passengers association — which claims nearly 700 members — encourages Wisconsin residents to contact their representatives in support of the second train as the state nears its next budget cycle. The completion of feasibility studies in Wisconsin and Minnesota regarding TCMC “is the most important item right now,” Brown said, because the studies almost are completed but need more funding. He estimated Wisconsin’s total share of the studies at less than $10 million.
Because the TCMC route is less than 750 miles, its operating costs would be shouldered by the states, not Amtrak, Brown said. Once the studies are completed, TCMC would need more than $50 million in federal and state funding for infrastructure, said Brown, whose “optimistic” view for when the TCMC could be launched is 2022.
Amtrak says the Empire Builder gets about 100,000 passengers annually traveling on routes between Chicago and St. Paul. Amtrak estimates the TCMC would “very quickly” exceed that amount with 155,000 riders, Brown said, and the Portage station could see 11,000 users in the first year.
“How many people have you heard say they’re thinking about using the Amtrak but never have? We want them,” said Brown, who led a similar town hall meeting Wednesday in Tomah. “And how many people have you heard say they’ve used the train but not anymore? We want them back.”
“It doesn’t matter what letter comes after your representative’s name,” Brown said of seeking bipartisan support for the new train. “Please contact them.”
Follow Noah Vernau on Twitter @NoahVernau or contact him at 608-695-4956.